Eight weeks of starts and stops, cancellations and reshuffled schedules and, in some cases, smooth sailing could come down to 16 feet over two nights this weekend. That, of course, may be simplifying it, but Grand Canyon (14-5, 8-2) and Utah Valley’s (10-9, 8-3) “only in 2021” back-to-back series in Phoenix will decide the WAC regular season crown.
While there are potential game-changers on both sides, none will likely be more important than the big men occupying the paint for either team. And in Asbjørn Midtgaard and Fardaws Aimaq, Grand Canyon and Utah Valley, respectively, are pinning their championship hopes on centers vying for history.
For the Lopes, who are seeking their first men’s basketball hardware since joining Division I in 2013, Midtgaard has been a revelation. The Wichita State transfer was a bit player over three years in Wichita, but immediately burst onto the scene as a conventional, low post offensive force for Bryce Drew in his debut campaign.
Midtgaard started WAC play by helping stabilize GCU (19 points, 9 rebounds) in a three-point win at Tarleton State in January that saw the Texans’ pressure fluster a more experienced team. He then followed that up with an 18-point, 11-rebound, 5-block effort in the back-to-back, where he led a dominant defensive effort that held TSU to just 48 points.
The Denmark native talked about it in a release after the game.
“I can see everything down there so I’ve got to make sure to tell everybody they are and when they can drop down or come up,” Midtgaard said. “It’s a very communicative zone. If we don’t communicate, it’s not going to work. I try to be the anchor down there and yell at people where to go and when to go. When they finally do drive, I’ve got to protect the rim. I’m just trying to protect the rim and win the game.”
Though it came against a Division I newbie, that impressive WAC debut would be a preview of what was to come in a season that has put Midtgaard in contention for WAC POY. He’s averaged a double-double (14.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG) while serving as a perfect low-post complement for fellow big man Alessandro Lever’s ability to hurt teams from the perimeter. He’s added a source of reliable, physical paint-oriented scoring that the Lopes lacked in recent years that saw their offense stall at various points under Dan Majerle.
And then there’s the gravy in the equation.
Midtgaard’s bruising display in Stephenville (12-17 FG over the two games) was what he’d go on to do game in and game out. As the weekend series in Phoenix looms, the Dane is a virtual lock to secure the WAC single season field goal percentage record, with his 75.5 field goal percentage far outpacing the 67.3 percent Boise State’s Kurt Cunningham posted in 2008-09. In fact, the atmospheric figure is historical without hyperbole. Since 1992, only four players have finished the season with better figures while putting up at least the number of attempts (139)Midtgaard has so far this season. Most recently, that included All-American-type players in Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike and UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok.
But Midtgaard won’t be alone in a pursuit of history alongside a trophy push.
UVU is seeking to win its second WAC regular season title, and to add a long-awaited sequel to the championship it won in its inaugural league campaign in 2013-14. At the heart of it has been Aimaq, a Mercer transfer who has gobbled up virtually every rebound that has come within his orbit. The forward is the nation’s leading rebounder (15.4 RPG), and is nearly three rebounds per game clear of the next highest figure.
The redshirt has an incredible family backstory, and found a place to thrive under second-year coach Mark Madsen in Orem. Madsen talked to the Deseret News about the team knowing Aimaq was special during his sit-out year.
As a scout team player in practices last year, teammates complained, “Coach, we can’t keep this guy off the glass. We can’t box him out,” Madsen said.
“He’s a rebounder. He does it with his timing, with his energy and his pure passion,” the coach said. “It’s a pleasure to have him in this program.”
Aimaq’s glass guzzling has led to some gaudy stat lines this year. He’s pulled down 20 rebounds or more three times this season, including a program-record 25 rebounds against Dixie State in mid February. As notably, a 17-rebound night helped lead to an always-important win over New Mexico State, even in a down year for the Aggies.
And like Midtgaard, Aimaq is chasing his own history. In addition to having the season rebounding title locked down, he’s also closing in on the WAC single season rebounding record. His average of 15.7 rebounds per game during WAC play is currently just edging out the 15.6 rebounds per game that Paul Millsap lodged for Louisiana Tech in 2005-06.
Record or not, the title would be a massive accomplishment for Aimaq, Madsen and the Wolverines. UVU was picked seventh in the WAC preseason poll, and has had to watch “what if’s” just up the road as former players Brandon Averette and Richard Harward play roles on BYU’s tournament-bound team. But alongside Trey Woodbury and Jamison Overton, Aimaq and the Wolverines have flipped the script during the league season.
There’s a good chance both centers stamp their name in the record book this weekend, but only will be able hoist the WAC’s regular season trophy. Put that all together and there’s a much watch series in Phoenix.